Illusions of circularity
There’s a lot of buzz on the concept of Circular Economy these days. It holds promises of creating a world free of waste and capable of keeping its materials in closed loops. The idea is strong, attractive and challenging and it looks like its simplicity is able to mobilise huge interest around the globe. Last week it reached the projection screens of Davos. There it caused excitement and even the announcement of a 4th industrial revolution.
Of course, we should welcome all interest in this field of resource conservation, sustainability and waste management. Nevertheless we need to be realistic in order to protect our politicians, policy-makers and public from disappointments caused by a new, green fata morgana.
Where does the concept come from and where does it lead us to? Let’s try to place its pleasant illusion into some straightforward perspective. As far as I know there is no new breakthrough technology able to do the job of circularity. Neither did I find any news on a major growth in private and public budgets spent on resource recovery nor a spectacular increase in our public awareness on this subject. It’s true; there has been some good progress on waste management and recycling in most developed countries. But at the same time we have to be honest and admit that we pushed away a large part of the tailings of our society towards developing countries and to remote places of our earth. Think for example of the effects of offshoring manufacturing capacity, producing ore-concentrates in desolated mining area’s, open burning of electronic waste on the shores of Africa and shipwrecks ending up on the shores of East-Asian countries.
It’s not hard to conclude that there’s no actual reason to think that we are on the brink of something radical new. The only thing that’s new seems to be the idea of circularity itself. Its source lies in a (primarily European) fear of being dependent and vulnerable with regard to the provision of basic resources like phosphate and oil and energy in general. It’s geo-politics and there’s nothing green about it.
Circularity itself implies that we will be able to hold our raw materials in an eternal cycle. It promises that our recycle industry will eventually replace the mining industry. This can’t be true. All processes show material losses. In fact: these losses are a fact of life as their existence is ruled by our world’s inevitable journey towards more chaos and dispersion. Only the input of external energy will give us the possibility to reverse this process on a small scale . This may sound a little religious but it’s nothing less than solid physics ruled by the second law of thermodynamics.
Transferring this abstraction into daily life conclusions: a circular economy can only be realised by tapping our sun’s daily energy influx and use this energy to drive our recycle processes. As long as we are using fossil fuels, our “circular” processes will lead to old-school “linear” displacements with emissions somewhere in the oilfields, coal mines, refineries and power stations of this world.
The notion of achievable circularity may be an ideal in both a positive and a negative sense. We need an ideal to push our society forward but at the same time this ideal may distract our attention from the real problems and their solutions. To cope with waste problems in developing countries and cities is one of them and for this purpose we need sound management and basic linear waste treatment facilities like landfills. And if you have seen the apocalyptic waste problems in the mining area’s of this world you will know that the solution for the next decades will not come from circularity but must come from less consumption, new materials, public awareness and higher consumer prices.
Concepts like “circular economy” and “cradle to cradle” have the risk to act as a lightning rod attracting all energy, attention and money and making us look away from reality. It takes the heads of many politicians and some corporate CEO’s into the clouds and makes it a perfect toy for over-active pr-officials, shouting for attention in Davos.
There is no revolution. At least not in our resource/waste cycle. We have no alternative but to work hard on incremental improvements in our recycling processes, support developing countries in reaching sound waste management services, strive for more public awareness and accept higher prices of consumer products. Is the concept of circular economy helpful? I have my doubts. In my opinion the only revolution may come from the energy-turnaround that’s taking place at this moment. Let’s hope our politicians recognise this and learn to deal with expensive CO2 in times of cheap oil.